Barry Day’s new biography presents Raymond Chandler’s life as if he wrote the book himself, though the guy never wrote an autobiography or memoir. Day relies mostly on excerpts from the “hardboiled” fiction writer’s work for his portrait, along with material from Chandler’s interviews, letters, short stories, novels, and articles. He threads some commentary as “a little linkage to the Dames, the Cops, the Crooks” in the “mean streets” of Chandler’s world.
Using that same method, Day has written biographies of P. G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Parker, and Oscar Wilde. A seemingly lazy method, it works well enough in offering an outline of the life, but the result feels a bit thin, with little analysis or insight.
In this biography, Day portrays a gifted, but troubled, alcoholic writer who cared more about words than other pulp writers. Day exposes the softboiled man in Chandler’s love for his wife, Cissy, and his cat Taki. Chandler the writer, though, had a gift for writing tough-guy dialogue and for concocting the simile that’s sometimes “crazy as a pair of waltzing mice.”
Day speeds through Chandler’s early life like a Packard at full throttle. He was born in Chicago in 1888. His father was “an utter swine” who deserted his family. After his parents divorced, Chandler moved to Europe with his mother and received what he later referred to as a “classical education.’’ At around 17, he returned to America for a time.
Later he knocked around the continents, served in World War I, worked odd jobs, and finally got a job as an accountant. He married Cissy Pascal, whom he stole away from her husband and who was 18 years his senior. They would live together happily until her death more than 30 years later.
Chandler immersed himself in American English, which he considered a foreign language, and created his own hardboiled vernacular, eventually becoming a successful pulp novelist and Hollywood screenwriter. Chandler admired Erle Stanley Gardner, but often criticized his other contemporaries, including James M. Cain and Ernest Hemingway (both judged “lazy with language”) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (“just missed being a great writer”). But Chandler knew his own limitations.
The road to his success wasn’t “paved with golden kudos.” As a young man, he tried to write serious literary stuff and wound up writing reviews, essays, and satirical sketches for three or four pounds a week. He wrote some verse, too, “most of which now seems to me as deplorable.”
Chandler didn’t publish his first story “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” until 1933 when he was 45, and his first novel, “The Big Sleep,” six years later. After getting that first story published, he turned his focus to improving his craft, claiming he would turn out “30,000 words to turn in five.” and he achieved some measure of success, publishing around 20 pulp stories between 1933-1939 — but complained that “[w]hat I write that sells is not at all the sort of thing I really want to write.”
It was in Hollywood where Chandler made some real dough. In 1943, he made $1,750 a week to work on his first screenplay. Compare that to the penny a word he made from writing his first pulp story or to the $25 a day his famous protagonist Philip Marlowe pocketed. Working in Hollywood, Chandler made good money, even got an Oscar nomination, but working with the Billy Wilders and the Alfred Hitchcocks proved agonizing to the fragile, dissatisfied writer.
Day isn’t the first to take this quote-his-work approach to a Chandler biography: Dorothy Gardiner and Katherine Sorley Walker edited their compendium of the writer’s works and papers, “Raymond Chandler Speaking,” in 1962. But Day’s book, with more than 100 photos, makes a solid introduction to Chandler’s work. It includes some fine stuff you won’t find in other bios and illuminates Chandler’s life and times “like a swung curtain of crystal beads.”
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at joe@joseph
peschel.com or through his blog atjosephpeschel.com